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  • Ramanjit Singh

We became the Other overnight


Reading through the eye witness accounts of the partition holocaust, one keeps encountering a common narrative from the refugees that they never thought that the partition was going to be permanent. In fact the word "partition" was not in the lexicon of words used at the time. People in the villages had very little understanding of what the division of British India really meant to them on a personal basis. Punjabis never imagined that the division of British India would mean transfer of population, or leaving one's ancestral farm, town or village. They never imagined that they would become the "other" overnight and will not be accepted in their own land. To them regardless of whether they end up in Pakistan or India, a farmer will remain a farmer in their own village, a namberdar would remain the head of their own village, a tarkhan would remain the carpenter of their own village, a zamindar would remain the land owner of their own ancestral land. To ordinary Punjabis, partition and independence meant an end of a long drawn out political battle fought in far away Delhi which was going to have little or no impact on their day-to-day lives.

Punjabis never accepted that the idea of partition meant leaving their homes. They often say "assan na kitta ay manzoor" when they talk about the calamity of leaving their homes.

In majority of the stories that I have read, almost all of them thought that the violence will subside in few days and they will eventually return to their homes. In one of the stories, a Sikh tells his Muslim friend that they have said "Good Morning" to their British rulers all their lives, now they will say "Salam-alaikum" to their Muslim rulers, so what is the big deal. The "other" was willing to accept the new realities of what the creation of the two separate states meant and thought that life would go on as usual as it has been for so many centuries regardless of who was in power. Muslims were ruled by the Sikhs in Punjab during Maharaja Ranjit Singh's time, and before his arrival, Sikhs were ruled by the Mughals, and so the cycle of adjusting to whoever was running Punjab at a given time was a normal part of their historical experience.

In pre-partition Punjab, one's life was stationary. One's life revolved around the village and most of the localized activities was focussed around farming. Traveling to other cities let alone other provinces was rare. People adjusted to living in their village and the idea of migration was an alien concept to them. There were hardly any newspapers or radios that could have informed the villagers of the political maneuvers taking place in Delhi between the Muslim League, the Congress and the British. So when the Partition was announced in Aug14-15th 1947, for few days people thought that their lives will not be affected by it. But soon the wave of violence engulfed the entire province. Migrants coming from the other side shared tales of the kind of horrific violence they had experienced at the hands of the "other". These stories fueled the tensions and created a sentiment of vengeance that led to one of the greatest holocaust in world history.

The "others" were usually told that they have to leave and there's no place for them here. Reacting to these changing events, people first thought they will stay put and weather the storm no matter what. However as the days went by and the accelerating stream of refugees ventured into the towns and cities of Punjab, the conditions for the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs became untenable in their own place of existence. Staying put placed an existential threat to their families. Added pressure of rehabilitating the refugees in their new country meant forcibly removing the "other" from their ancestral homes and making space for the new.

Even with these events taking place, people still thought that the partition was not permanent. Most buried or hid their family jewels and cash with a false belief that they would be able to recover their property after few days. Some would give away keys of their homes to the neighbors asking them to take care of the house until they are back in a week. For Hindus and Sikhs the idea of staying on in a new country of Pakistan was not a radical idea. Their ancestors have lived under the Mughal and Afghan rulers for centuries and most thought that they can adjust to this new political reality as well. Muslims in India believed in the secular ideals of the Congress and believed that they can continue to stay on in India. However the political pressures on the ground were completely different than any reality they had faced earlier.

New political realities demanded that the "other" be physically removed from their own land. Hindus and Sikhs no longer were Pakistanis and Muslims were no longer Indians. Once this reality set in there was no turning back. The new normal meant that if you are Sikh or Hindu living in Montgomery then you are an alien and you can either escape while you can or be killed. Similarly if you are a Muslim in Rohtak, you can escape while you can or be killed. The new normal had no room for the "other".

There are also stories about religious conversions but these were most often a ploy to kill the "other" later on due to one reason or the other. In one of the books I read, all the Muslims of one village near Rohtak were converted to Hinduism and later on all these converted Hindus were killed as they opposed cremating one of their dead and wanted to bury the body instead. Old religious practices were hard to disavow and that became a pretense for the majority to kill the newly converted. Similarly a whole swath of Hindus and Sikhs were forcibly converted to Islam in the Narowal district.

Forced migration was an alien concept for Punjabis. In one of the stories, a Sikh family in Lyallpur is told by their Muslim friend that they have to leave as soon as possible since the Muslim well-wisher believed that the criminal gangs were planning on attacking the Sikhs. In Ludhiana, the Muslims families were informed of the gathering danger that would engulf the entire East Punjab and that they must leave as soon as possible. Both stories of the "other" are played in parallel, both sides faced the new reality, one in West Punjab and the other in East Punjab. Both families had to leave. There will be arguments and questions about whether they should leave or not? When can they come back? How much money they should carry with them? Where are they going? Some left without taking their property papers, some left with not even a single rupee in their pockets.

No body had imagined the horrors they will encounter as they move out of their homes. The horrors of making split-second decisions whether to shoot their own young daughters or wives as the criminal hordes came running towards them to take them away. The horrors of losing their children, the horrors of starvation, the horrors of children hiding in the sugarcane fields as they saw their parents getting slaughtered.

One of the question that got stuck in my mind is when someone asked the head of his family as to why they still want to kill us if we have decided to leave the place? What benefit if at all these criminal gangs would achieve in killing us? If the purpose of violence was to instill fear and force people to move out then they had already achieved that goal. People in August were moving out, they were slowly walking towards the other side of the border. I believe that the primary purpose of partition was not to forcibly move people to the other side, instead it was really to ethnically cleanse and destroy the very existence of the "other". Partition was not about forced migration, it was about genocide.

To me the independence of both India and Pakistan is underwritten by the blood of the innocents who were mercilessly killed. Those who eventually made it to the other side had to suffer the pain of remembering how good their lives were before the partition. They longed for their old homes, their old friends, their old land they had ploughed for centuries and this loss was never forgotten. Most of the refugees were never able to claim all the lost property and got very little in return in their new country. Some could not adjust to the new surroundings and to the new people.

Partition did not end in 1947, it barely had begun for the millions who were now displaced from their homes. Sikhs and Hindus left Nankana Sahib, Kartarpur Sahib, they left Lahore, they left Sialkot, they left Peshawar, they left Rawalpindi, they left Sheikhupura, they left their canal colonies which they had worked hard over half a century to develop. Muslims had to leave the ancestral villages in East Punjab, it meant leaving Ludhiana, it meant leaving Amritsar, it meant leaving Ferozepur, it meant leaving Jullunder, it meant leaving Delhi.

I often wondered about the night of December 31st, 1946. To those who celebrated the arrival of 1947, there would have been so much hope and well wishes for not only what the new year meant to their families but also how it will bring the nation closer to getting complete independence from the British. No one in that fateful new year's night could have ever imagined the enormity of horrors it will bring to them personally and to the nation as a whole.

I long for the day I can visit 105 Chakk, Bangey, Lyallpur, the birthplace of Sardar Bhagat Singh.

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